Obama perpetuates base-line gimmickry. He claims to save hundreds of billions by drawing down forces in Iraq. But even the Bush administration was going to draw down. Obama is claiming bogus savings by not spending money that never would have been spent anyway.
Obama grades himself on a curve. He’s set a target of merely cutting the deficit in half from 2010 to 2013. But the red ink has quadrupled in one year. Cutting the deficit to still unsustainable levels as the economy recovers is about as challenging as riding a sled downhill.
The greatest shortcomings are sins of omission, not commission. If you watched Obama’s magnificent speech Tuesday night, you got the impression that he bestrides Washington like a colossus. He imposes his authority in ways large and small, purging old habits. In reality, the situation is messier. At times, there is a weird passivity emanating from the White House, a deference to the Washington establishment. Almost no sacred cows are cut from this budget. The president is now engaged in an argument with Democratic appropriators about whether to strike earmarks from the omnibus spending bill. He’s apparently getting rolled even on a matter as easy and clear-cut as this.
The bigger problem is health care. This is an issue where everybody wants benefits they don’t pay for, where perverse incentives have created an expensive system that doesn’t deliver results. This is an area where aggressive presidential leadership is mandatory.
Yet in no other area does the administration cede so much authority. The administration has over-learned the lessons of the Clinton-care fiasco. They’re not going to send up a detailed 1,400-page program. Fine. But they’re not pushing a plan at all.
Instead, replicating the model that did such harm to the stimulus package, they are merely outlining eight general principles and then sending the matter up to Capitol Hill. They vow to have a series of “conversations” and then presumably at some point some group of committee chairmen will write a bill or a bunch of bills.
The balance of power will be clear. The White House will have no dominating figure to ride herd day to day now that Tom Daschle is out of the picture. Instead, the same old chairmen habituated by the same old interest groups will dominate everything.
If Hillary Clinton were still in the Senate, at least there would be a focus. If Ted Kennedy were at full strength, the negotiations would be coherent. Instead, there will be a wide array of committee chairmen in the House and Senate scrambling for influence, maneuvering with and against each other through a Machiavellian process of secret negotiations and back-room deals.
Thursday, there was a weird burst of optimism in the halls of the Washington Establishment. Most members of Congress and lobbyists are delighted that the White House has surrendered so much authority to Capitol Hill. Everybody is working on a way to push their own particular vision of reform through the muddle.
There are good plans on offer, but it won’t take long for this to get ugly. We’ll either get an irresponsible bill produced by the Old Order or no bill at all. It could be that even with a thousand “conversations,” no consensus will automatically emerge from the hundreds of players who have produced the gridlock of the past 30 years.
Even though the budget is not all one would have hoped, I’d trust the folks in the Obama administration to craft a decent health care plan before I’d trust the Congressional Old Bulls. Obama blew a mighty trumpet Tuesday night, but after you blow the trumpet, you actually have to charge.